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From Doug Flutie to Kyler Murray: Inside the NFL’s newfound embrace of short quarterbacks

Oklahoma's 5-foot-10 quarterback Kyler Murray is expected to be the first pick in this year's NFL draft. (Photo illustration/The Washington Post)
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Doug Flutie, a quarterback consigned professionally to Canadian glory and journeyman status in his own country, admits he often thinks about how he might fit into the NFL today. He played in the 1980s and ’90s and stood shorter than a standard refrigerator, which suddenly makes him a man born before his time.

Flutie was a jitterbug, 5-foot-10, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with uncommon arm strength for his size. Kyler Murray, who fits that description precisely, might be this year’s hottest NFL draft commodity.

“It just means,” Flutie said, “I was 20 years too early.”

For years, NFL executives turned away undersized quarterbacks like so many you-must-be-this-tall-to-enter-the-ride signs. One year after the Cleveland Browns took 6-1 Baker Mayfield first overall, the Arizona Cardinals may pluck Murray with the same pick in this month’s draft. Murray’s stature once would have been detrimental to the point of disqualifying. As recently as 10 years ago, ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay posited, teams would have asked a quarterback like Murray to play slot receiver and return kicks.

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Height still matters, of course — Murray briefly became the buzziest story in sports simply for measuring 5-10 instead of 5-9 at the NFL scouting combine. But now, as a response to several trends, the league does not only tolerate the package of skills and size Murray presents. It embraces athletic quarterbacks, even if they stand around 6-foot or shy of it. The adoption of shotgun-heavy, spread-out offenses and prohibitions on how quarterbacks can be hit have cleared a path for humans of average size to play the demanding position.

In 2012, the Seattle Seahawks took 5-11 Russell Wilson in the third round. Coach Pete Carroll called him a “living example” of how the sport has shifted. If a prospect of identical qualities came along now, he would be scooped in the first round, likely near the top. The NFL has changed to accommodate — and, for some teams, even prioritize — the skills of shorter passers.

“I’ve been guilty of this as well,” first-year Cincinnati Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said. “You just put this label on a guy’s size, when what’s important is: ‘Do they elevate the players around him? Do they believe in him? Are they accurate? Do they get the ball out on time? Do they understand what the defense is presenting?’ You’ve seen guys of all sizes excel in this NFL lately. I think that’s becoming less of a qualifier. Now guys are just looking at, ‘Can this guy play?’ ”

Lincoln Riley coached Mayfield and Murray at Oklahoma. He never prioritized height, because his system — a spread-out, pass-heavy offense that allows the quarterback to choose his targets based on the defensive coverage, usually while operating out of the shotgun formation instead of directly under center — did not require it. He now has even less regard for the importance of height at the position.

“Having them has made me believe, you know what, all these limitations that maybe we’ve had in our mind for years and years, when you’ve got a great player, I don’t think they exist nearly as much as people think,” Riley said. “Yeah, 15 years ago, people were still running a lot of West Coast offense and throwing a lot of three-step drops from under center; would it have been more of a factor? Maybe. Watching the game I’m watching, I don’t see it as much of a factor anymore.”

‘I’ve always had to play at this height’

In the early 1990s, while playing in the Canadian Football League, Flutie watched film of Edmonton quarterback Damon Allen, the brother of NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen. Edmonton predominantly used the shotgun, and Flutie studied how Allen would sometimes keep the ball on called handoffs when the defensive end left one side of the field open while pursuing the running back. It wasn’t a called play, Flutie surmised, just Allen making an athletic improvisation. Flutie stole the tactic, then added a wrinkle: He would tell an outside wide receiver to run a route so he could toss him the ball if the cornerback also abandoned his responsibilities to attempt to stop the run.

“It wasn’t in the playbook,” Flutie said. “It wasn’t written out — if this, then that. We were just being athletes. But all this innovation of zone read and throwing routes off of run plays, we were doing that 25 years ago in Canada.”

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Those plays complemented the basis of Calgary’s offense: Flutie spreading the field with five wideouts, making a pre-snap read, then delivering the ball quickly, mostly out of necessity: Canadian teams then often used the offensive line to stash requisite Canadian-born players while taking last-cut pass rushers from NFL training camps.

“We were doing all that stuff even before it got popular at the college level,” Flutie said. “I remember Chip Kelly saying he came up before he was at [New Hampshire], and he came up to Toronto and he watched all our game film, all the stuff we were doing. Then he went back to UNH and lit it up, and then he got the Oregon job.”

There is a crucial moral of Flutie’s history lesson, from a quarterback who won a record six most outstanding player awards in the CFL before getting another shot at the NFL late in his career. Take away the extra acreage of the CFL field and the 12th player, and the offensive environment in which Flutie dominated as a 5-10 quarterback resembles the landscape of today’s NFL: spread-out offenses, rapid-fire pass plays and creative pass-run options, operated primarily out of the shotgun.

The reasons for the rise of those offenses in the NFL have grown familiar. This generation of quarterbacks has grown up playing in variations of the spread from peewee through college, many of them year-round with the rise of seven-on-seven leagues. Quarterbacks reach the NFL wired to play a certain way, and limits on practice time instituted in the latest collective bargaining agreement don’t leave coaches enough time to reprogram them.

Even if they did, they’d be sacrificing expertise. By the time quarterbacks reach the NFL, they have played more reps in one style than any generation that came before.

“It’s no different than an NFL quarterback, a Drew Brees or Tom Brady, that ends up in a similar system for a lot of years,” Riley said. “These guys started in this similar system when they were 12 years old, if not younger. They just kind of got a lot of stock built up in it.”

Said Taylor: “You get these quarterbacks, you’re doing these RPOs [run-pass options], and they’ve got better familiarity with it than you do at times.”

Those offenses favor shorter, athletic quarterbacks, or at least equalize the field for them. Playing out of the shotgun mitigates vision problems. More receivers means fewer rushers and wider passing lanes, which leads to fewer batted passes. The success of the 6-foot quarterback is not purely new; Brees, who’s listed at 6-foot but is probably closer to 5-11, won the Super Bowl 10 seasons ago. But the recent success of Wilson and Mayfield has helped open minds to Murray’s prospects.

Coaches and executives have realized a point Carroll makes frequently in discussing Wilson: Short quarterbacks have been short all their lives, and if they couldn’t overcome their height deficiency, they would have been weeded out long before the NFL.

“I’m always the smallest guy on the field,” Murray said last month at the NFL combine. “I’ve said it multiple times — I feel like I’m the most impactful guy on the field and the best player on the field at all times. I’ve always had to play at this height.”

The advantages of not being 6-foot-4

During a phone conversation last month, Riley considered a thought experiment: If Murray woke up tomorrow and had suddenly grown to 6-4, would he be a better quarterback?

Riley said he never made any accommodations to his offense for Murray’s height, so the answer would be no. But then he went a step further: Riley said Murray might be a worse quarterback if he was prototypical size. Modern offenses prize athleticism, and Murray’s incandescent speed and quickness would be lost if he were taller.

“There’s some advantages that Kyler has by not being 6-4,” Riley said. “If there is a human on Earth that is 6-4 that has the short-area quickness and the burst that an athlete like Kyler Murray does, then I haven’t seen him. You see guys like this — Steve Smith, Barry Sanders, Tavon Austin, Tyreek Hill — some of those guys, because they’re not as long as other athletes, they can get their feet in the ground quicker. That short-area quickness, which is so important in this game, and one of the areas Kyler really excels. I don’t know if he’d be the same athlete if he was 6-4, I guess is what I’m saying.”

Sports science backs up Riley’s point. The greatest soccer players in the world tend to come in pint-size packages, because those body types allow for quick movement in confined spaces. For many NFL offenses, those same movements place more pressure on a defense than the ability to see over the line of scrimmage.

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“Those physical relationships between height and speed and change-of-direction ability are definitely there,” said Kevin Carroll, an assistant professor of exercise science and physical education at Montclair (N.J.) State University. “From the purely physical side of things, when you look at most of the top sprinters in the world, Usain Bolt is the exception to the rule. When you actually look at the average heights of elite sprinters, they’re actually fairly short. In soccer players, they’re fairly short.”

At the combine, Murray seemed to calm some teams’ concerns by measuring 5 feet 10 1/8 inches rather than 5-foot-9, his listed height at Oklahoma. What nobody could explain is why that mattered so much. Murray will still be the shortest quarterback drafted, in any round, since at least 2000. Riley laughed when he considered the importance of that inch. In his mind, it had more to do with perception than performance.

“I could tell you why it matters,” Riley said. “I don’t agree with it. It matters because you’re talking about guys willing to stand on the table to draft a guy. It’s just a little bit of an extra sense of security. ‘Well, he was 5-10 as opposed to 5-9.’ It just helps them sleep better at night. At the end of the day, does it change who he is as a player or what he can do? Absolutely not.”

The comfort of convention caused the entire league to overlook Wilson in the draft — even the team that took him. “Were we affected by [his height]?” Carroll, the coach, asked. “Yeah, we were. Just because of tradition.”

Broncos General Manager John Elway said short quarterbacks can thrive in the shotgun, but that comes with a meaningful concession. He believes play-action passes function properly from under center, and those plays would compromise the vision of a 6-footer. This preference for tall quarterbacks has not served Elway well. He acquired Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch, both of whom are 6-7, with high draft choices and watched both falter. He chased the strategy by dealing a fourth-round draft pick to the Baltimore Ravens this offseason for 6-6 Joe Flacco.

Flutie, incidentally, said play-action passes from under center were some of his favorite plays. After making the fake, he said, he could drift deep enough to see the field while giving receivers time to run double-moves.

For decision-makers, height has become a small consideration, less important than most other factors. Browns General Manager John Dorsey, who picked Mayfield, cited arm strength first when asked what short quarterbacks need to make teams believe in them. Then he listed intangibles that would apply to a quarterback of any height. “Are you truly a natural born leader?” Dorsey said. “Do guys gravitate toward you? Are you competitive?”

Murray will get to answer those questions on an NFL field. If he succeeds, it would be the final, most convincing argument for short quarterbacks. Years after he never received a full chance at the NFL, Flutie will be watching, wondering for himself and invested in others like him.

“I don’t know if I feel vindication,” Flutie said. “But I definitely cheer for them. I’m definitely pulling for those guys to do well. Maybe by them doing well, it validates what I was doing. For the most part, I just cheer for them. I just want to see them succeed.”

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